Sustainability has been at the core of operations at Varming for decades.

CEO James Kavanagh is a huge believer in engineer’s capability to change the world.  He says “Engineers are natural ambassadors for change. The engineering community, coming together with politicians and goodwill, will make real transformation happen.”

During our podcast we hear about their design ethos and how they make the most of nature to create efficient buildings. We also discover the most important yet invisible resource at medical and industrial facilities, how they made a century old building carbon neutral and how to keep your engineering creativity strong.

Listen below or on your podcast player!

Topics we discussed include

  • The importance of a building's skin
  • When MEP is not MEP
  • The smartest elements of design today
  • Net Zero solution at Donegal Garda Station
  • Challenges unique to medical facilities
  • Building design in 2030
  • Attracting new talent into Engineering


Engineers are natural ambassadors for change. The engineering community, coming together with politicians and goodwill, will make real transformation happen.

Guest details

James Kavanagh joined Varming Consulting Engineers in 1990. In 2000 he joined the management team as Associate responsible for the management of a portfolio of projects primarily in the Educational and Industrial Sectors. In 2007 James became a Director of Varming Consulting Engineers and is currently Chief Executive.He is a fully qualified Chartered Engineer, Registered Consultant Engineer, Registered European Engineer and a member of the Institute of Directors.

Contact details

+353 1 487 2300

More information

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Transcription text

For your convenience, here is a 90% accurate automated transcript of the podcast.

Dusty Rhodes  0:03 

Right now on amplified the engineers journal podcast, we're about to meet the top man at farming Consulting Engineers, James Kavanagh.

James Kavanagh  0:11 

An engineer is innately curious and has aspirations to better tanks, to change things and to change things for the good. One of the challenges at the minute is sort of climate change and how that's tackled. Engineers have been designing sustainably for a long, long time. Sometimes maybe going into the profession they don't see that but looking back on it, they actually appreciate how valuable if you like engineers are to society.

Dusty Rhodes  1:01 

Hello, my name is Dusty Rhodes and you welcome to amplified the engineers journal podcast where we speak with leading members of our community about how engineers are delivering interesting and sustainable solutions for society. Joining us today is a man with a huge experience as a fully qualified Chartered Engineer, registered consultant engineer, registered European engineer and a member of the Institute of directors. Over the next half hour or so he'll be sharing with us some of his 30 years experience of the forefront of award winning design projects, CEO of vomitting, consultant engineers, James cabinet, you're very welcome. Morning, they'll

James Kavanagh  1:38 

see. For those who

Dusty Rhodes  1:41 

don't know, can you tell us a little bit about vacuuming and the work that the firm concentrates on?

James Kavanagh  1:48 

So Brahman consulting engineers have been in existence, it's now our 76th year in terms of engineering, we operate within the builds what's known as the built environment. So our appointments are based mainly around buildings. And within those, the engineering system supports that supports buildings. So what we're talking about is mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and passive engineering, within buildings and to support buildings. So the heating, the lighting, the ventilation, the air conditioning, but more importantly, to support those systems. We're involved in the engineering of the skin, if you like, of the building, which controls the environment to a large extent within the buildings. Overall, I suppose we're responsible for the safe, comfortable and efficient design of buildings, Mother buildings and their operation. And how big is the firm? At the moment, the firm is approximately 55 employees full time employees. We have offices in Dublin, but we also have offices in Cork, and we have offices in Roscommon

Dusty Rhodes  2:54 

Now you mentioned MEP, and a lot of people when you say MEP, the guy Yeah, mechanical engineering, plumbing. You didn't say plumbing?

James Kavanagh  3:02 

No. Me MEP is generic term, which a lot of people will understand as mechanical, electrical and plumbing. But the P in our case also means passive passive engineering. So in the let's say, the built environment in a building, you have the internal systems, which is the heating, the lighting the ventilation, but in terms of passive systems, you have the skin of the building, which is actually controlling the heating. So things like insulation, things like facade, design, energy efficient fabric, that type of thing, basically, anything that's not actively working is passive. So sunlight, natural ventilation, for example, will be will be quite a prominent system in terms of passive design used a lot in schools, for example, schools, classrooms, general classrooms, are designed to operate passively through natural ventilation to openable windows. So initially, the design would be passive first and then active.

Dusty Rhodes  4:01 

So when you're coming to a project, you're kind of you're looking grant, how can we get the skin rise? Yeah. And then underneath the skin, then develop it from there that ties in in my head with climate change and sustainability, because you're trying to make the most of nature in order to make a more efficient building. Is that a fair comment?

James Kavanagh  4:22 

Yeah, it does. It's a fair. It's a fair comment, I suppose. Like, I mean, one of the challenges at the minute, is sort of climate change and how and how that's tackled, like I mean, in terms of where we operate, let's say in the in the built environment. Like we're building buildings, if you like, at a rate faster than we done we ever have. I read some statistics on where we're building the equivalent floor area of the state of New York every 24 days. That's a huge challenge. And within that, buildings themselves are responsible for 40% of the world's carbon emissions 40% of that 40 percent is in relation to the operation of those buildings, and 10%, which makes up to 40% round figures is associated with what's called embodied carbon, which is the carbon associated with new buildings and building materials. So if you can get in and and and influence that element have lived through our design, that's a key challenge. But it's also a key opportunity if you'd like to change things and change things for the good.

Dusty Rhodes  5:26 

And what do you think are some of the smartest elements of design today?

James Kavanagh  5:30 

I think the issue is, is that is to get to a situation where the engineering, let's say community, initially, like engineers are natural ambassadors for change. The natural ambassadors for climate change, engineers have been designing sustainably for a long, long time. I think I think the key issues is actually to get to a point where the engineering community actively combat if you like, climate change, but they can only they can't do that on their own, they can only do it in terms of their design. So we have a dedicated and have had for a long time, a dedicated sustainable design team, who works directly with architects advising them in energy efficient design. In our own operations were accredited to ISO 14,001, which has an environmental sustainability plan. So it's the answer your question, though, see, it's not actually one actual thing. So it's not electric cars. It's not photovoltaics? In my mind, what it is, is it's actually an engineering community force of all coming together with sort of politicians and goodwill, and making that transformation.

Dusty Rhodes  6:40 

Why do you feel it's important for engineers to lead the way instead of client demand?

James Kavanagh  6:45 

Well, what we're finding more and more is that the days of, let's say, force costs, best cost at any cost is starting to go. And in a lot of cases, what we are finding with our clients is that we're actually pushing open doors, all they actually really need to be aware of, is to be made aware of the of the technology, and we're finding that a lot of them are, most of them are actually embracing it. There are, let's say, requirements, legal requirements, which all of our clients need to embrace in terms of climate change and the requirements. So you know, we are pushing open doors, things have changed, I'd say. I would say that, in comparison to when I initially came into the business thing, it's like chalk and cheese in terms of client awareness. And that's,

Dusty Rhodes  7:36 

yeah, I was thinking about that. Because you know, the key words today in building design, and while I hear over and over his sustainability and renewable energy in low carbon tech and smart energy management, all the things we're talking about, and this is all leaps of head of what we had in the year 2000. Yep, yep. What do you what do you see coming down the line? What standards do you think may be common in 2050?

James Kavanagh  8:02 

Well, where we are at the minute in terms of lots more standards coming down the line, but targets to be matched by 2050. And indeed, in some cases by 2030, is in terms of net zero or near or near zero energy buildings. And that's, that's one of our keen, keen interest. And at the moment, there are buildings which are achieving that standard. And we've been involved in some of them. One major issue in terms of commitment, and our commitment is our design service, sustainable design service that we that we provide both to in house and external consultants as well. Change starts from within like, I mean, so at the moment, we were the first dedicated consultancy in Ireland to be signatories to the World Green Building Council and that zero carbon building commitment. were signatories to the ACI pledge to net zero. And we support the Irish Green Building Council and building a net zero net zero Orland. What does that all mean? Well, what it actually means is that there's sort of three or four key strands on any of those commitments, which is commit. So as far as we're concerned, we've committed the only occupied buildings which are net zero in operation by 2020. So there's your 22 already, but we're committing to it as bribing Consulting Engineers. As part of those commitments, we need to disclose and measure and disclose our own emissions. We need to act to develop a decarbonisation roadmap or head office at the moment is a multitalented building, and we have representation there of what they call that green team. If you like where all of the tenants and the landlord come together, it would have you to how you say upgrading the building from a practical point of view, then we need to verify and then we need to advocate and where are we advocating we're advocating to our clients. Put in practice what we're doing is we're advocating through our consultancy and our consultancy advice. It's that's the way we're advocating. So change is happening. It's Train we just need to get there and, and and keep the foot on the pedal. I think

Dusty Rhodes  10:05 

a lot of what you're saying sounds great. With always the proof of the pudding is when you're actually getting out and doing and you're involved in in a really interesting project recently, which you won an award for the netzero award for technical Garda station. Can you tell me about that?

James Kavanagh  10:22 

So don't go on guard to say we've, as Robin Consulting Engineers, we've won quite a lot of, let's say industry awards over over the years, the most recent one being Donegall 20, gold Guard Station, Donegall guard station was built, it's in the early 20th century. So it was around this time. This time last century. Yeah. When you think about that has been acting as a as a guard station for obviously, since then. So in terms of what we brought to the party, our in house team carried out some dynamic simulation modeling, which validated the environmental sustainability of the project. So basically, desktop studies tested out our, our ideas before they were costed before they were tendered. And they were proven, proven to be correct, to be correct.

Dusty Rhodes  11:10 

How did you test them and be able to prove them to be correct?

James Kavanagh  11:14 

Okay, so our in house team, as I said, carry out dynamic simulation modeling. So we can actually model a building in terms of as I talk to you about about the skin and the energy performance, we can actually model that in real time, it's not steady state, what would be known as steady state conditions, it's dynamic. So to move and you can see this, you can see this happening. And in terms of, let's say, the insulation, the facade design, we can we can model how that performs and have different how you say, options, design options, what walk will not walk, and we're working very, very closely now on all of this, I must say, the key to this is actually working very, very closely with the with the architect and the client in particular, to explain the systems we're using, and for them to understand and buy into into those designs. So what we had ultimately what it all came down to, was it was a both a refurbishment and an extension project to Donegal Guard Station. It consisted of the installation of air source heat pumps, with an enhanced insulation, the buildings when they operated, naturally, they leak. And if you can control that, you can actually control the level of heating. That's, that's that's required.

Dusty Rhodes  12:29 

Can I ask a quick question then about that building? It's 100 year old building? Did you have to keep the original building? Or were you able to just, you know, kind of razed to the ground and start afresh.

James Kavanagh  12:40 

There was an element, there was a small element of damage demolition, but that was purely as a function of the building itself. But primarily the building was retained and it was extended. So it was an extension on a refurbishment project. It was actually quite interesting and unusual. But as we said, and as far as, let's say, a building, which has been refurbished. You asked what I what I taught, was going to change, particularly over the over the next, you know, 1020 years, or whatever, I think, I think what we're going to see, and we know it's it's going to happen is the, let's say the refurbishment the repurpose repurposing of buildings as opposed to the demolition, and new builds, if you remember, we talked about that the embodied carbon and 10% of that 40% being associated with new with new projects. Do I think we really need to ask ourselves, do we really need to demolish what we're demolishing? Or can we repurposing?

Dusty Rhodes  13:44 

Or what is the challenge then of taking an existing building and an island? We've got a lot of very, very old existing buildings, and then bringing them up to a modern standard.

James Kavanagh  13:55  

It depends it depends, mostly it depends a lot on the depends a lot on the type of building we're talking about. Like, if you take an office building for example, okay, the focus of the building is actually from an occupants point of view and so far as the cell say safe, comfortable environment for office work, okay. If you if you on the other hand, look at any industrial building or process or whatever the focus of the systems are actually either on the safe or operational aspects of the product or the process. So if you talk for example, operating theatres, the key issue there is actually safe and sterile environment for operating. Now, it would not necessarily be practical. If you like to repurpose every building for an operating tear, some things have to be built from scratch. If you took a bio containment lab, for example, it would not necessarily be practical analysis to repurpose another building. If you took a residential building and an office building, there are synergies there between both of them. Bear with me. So it's repurpose, if you like, where, where practical and safe.

Dusty Rhodes  15:07 

James, let's let's dig into hospital systems kind of a little bit. Because you're saying like operating theatres, obviously, they have to be safe and sterile, you know, and you really need to make them modern. But when it comes to hospital systems, I mean, what are the kinds of challenges that are unique to medical facilities,

James Kavanagh  15:25 

healthcare facilities are basically broken into acute and non acute, acute hospital, for example, would have an operating period of Radiology, all of those, let's say specialist departments and non acute. Basically, Ward block element type is sort of not immediate, if you like more long term treatment. One thing that's really important in a hospital environment, and indeed a lot of industrial environments is the ability to keep the system running, there is a situation for example, where they just cannot accommodate a shutdown. So for example, in operating theatres, operating theaters normally come as a suite of operating theaters, you may have four, you may have six, you might have word up, you will very rarely have one operating suite. And systems are broken soza are broken down when they're designed. So as one system can sit down, let's say for maintenance, or whatever was wanting, so does the whole standby. And what's actually called resilience in terms of sizing, plant sizing, electrical plant sizing, Mechanical Plant, HVAC is heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. And then there's the electrical systems, such as generator, like safety systems and everything, which which, which would support those and supports the system. So one of the major challenges is the need, if you'd like to keep things going, the need to anticipate what next, the need to ensure that the systems are cleanable. And we do a lot of interaction, let's say, with infection, infection control people within hospitals. And operating theater, people will think of an operating theory, though, but it's actually an operating suite. And there's two or three different sort of standard, let's say layout suites. But a general suite, let's say would consist of the operating room itself, but also the lay of prep room, the scrub room, the anaesthetic room, and then the let's say, the dark utility, if that was in the design, so this is a suite does a suite of rooms. And one of the key challenges there from a ventilation point of view, is that the air systems, they actually control the the flow, let's say, of air from clean areas to less clean areas. And that may sound very simplistic, but it's actually quite challenging sometimes actually get right. So that's in terms of, let's say, infection, and infection control. And that's fundamental. In terms of the design of the design of operating theatres. It's actually very similar to the design of clean rooms, or boiler containment suites where it's slightly the other way around. So one of the key challenges in terms of HVAC systems across you know, a number of types of systems and facilities is actually the flow and the pressure profiling and achieving between between areas. So that's challenging.

Dusty Rhodes  18:19 

Is it the challenge of to clean the air? Or is that the challenge of routing the air to get it from A to B?

James Kavanagh  18:27 

It's actually both. As I said, either, there's a small number of standard layouts for, let's say, operating territories, one type of operating territories called the UCV, ultra clean ventilation system, that is primarily for bone surgery, which seems to be quite susceptible to infections, you open up your knee, and it's you know, so orthopedic surgery. So the challenge there. And then the challenge, likewise, is actually number one, as you say, cleaning the air, which is simple enough, right? There's, there's enough, let's say systems, technology filtration systems out there to clean it. But the real challenges when it's clean, okay, is to make sure that it's actually flowing where it should be. So it doesn't interfere either with product, let's say our personnel contamination and talking about product contamination, for example, is very similar, although much higher grades of filtration, if you're talking about let's say, chip manufacturer, semiconductor manufacturer,

Dusty Rhodes  19:30 

and where do you find the solutions is the solution in the piping is the solution in the filters that he use?

James Kavanagh  19:36 

The technology is out there, but the the actual solution is in the engineer who's designing the system, that's where the solution is. And the solution is in relation to the interaction. For example, if we're talking about, you know, for example, you know, theater Suites is is the close sort of interaction and collaboration for example, for the architect, okay, because you You can you can have systems, let's say which, you know, that does very small error differentials, which make a difference on maybe a sort of a loose fitting door or whatever. You know, what may have an effect will have an effect on the on the on the building, and it's everybody, everybody in the design team being aware, let's say the design parameters on what's on what's required. It's challenging what I would say those things, it's challenging. But for people in the business, it's more unique than challenging, you know, you would look back on a number of projects where they would be sort of unique, they would give you a sort of a being in the engineering profession would give you a sort of an insight into things you wouldn't not, let's say normally see, as I said, I mean, operating theatres, industrial ventilation, cleanroom design, it's a little bit of a sort of a gives you an opportunity, that little sort of peek behind the curtain, how does it actually walk? How are you? I think that, as I said to you, whatever, engineer has been sort of natural ambassadors for change, like innately, they're, they're curious people, you know, they want to know how things work. And career in engineering will give them the opportunity to see that, but it also gives them an opportunity to, to be involved in the design of either the systems themselves, or indeed, the systems that support them, which is what I found particularly beneficial, if you like, from the career in engineering, particularly building engineering.

Dusty Rhodes  21:28 

Let's talk a little bit more about keeping that spark in your brain and the curiosity going and always looking for new and interesting solutions to problems. Farming is known for a very strong spirit of creativity and innovation, and you're the CEO of a company, how do you keep that spirit alive with the staff?

James Kavanagh  21:49 

I qualified from what was Bolton street now at the College of Technology and what what is now to Dublin, I qualified as a building what was known as a building services engineer. We've maintained links with the college, particularly with the stream of building engineers coming from that course, the spark isn't actually there when they go in to answer your question. Right. So one of the sources is actually to get people who are let's say adaptable, ambitious, and aspirational. And we found people, generally engineers, that's what they are. They are adaptable. They're ambitious, and they're aspirational. They want to change things. And we found that course in particular, particularly goods, good source. Now, some people may say, Well, you would say that James, because you're from that course. But it is actually the truth. When we get them when when we got them when they come into our organization. They have the support of our cue HSE system, which is our quality health safety and environmental system. And that we have a mentoring program, and engineers Orland we have for many years, been part of their accredited, CPD program. We we know, and I know directly from talking to our younger staff that that is a huge a huge support, huge support for,

Dusty Rhodes  23:07 

as you say, getting people into the company, and if they're naturally curious, and they're great engineers, but finding those people in the first place seems to be getting harder and harder. Do you feel that the system is succeeding and getting new engineers into the business?

James Kavanagh  23:22 

It depends on which system I suppose mostly we're talking about, like, I mean,

Dusty Rhodes  23:26 

I think the education system from you know, secondary school through university and Technical College.

James Kavanagh  23:32 

Yeah, I think from what I've found, personally with my my experience of of that is in terms of drivers and what actually influences people to go into any profession. One of the curious things we may think of has changed but it hasn't changed is one of the main drivers for for people when they're choosing a career or profession is their parents and his peers and that is that that's actually been sort of proven scientific fact, you know, to into some of the the work that we do, you know, blown up don't that's a fact. They're one of the key drivers and what but also what's one of the one of the key drivers is that when and when that happens, that happens effectively in fourth level in primary school people not a lot of people make up their mind appropriate primary level, what they're actually going to do for the rest of their for the rest of their career initially anyway.

Dusty Rhodes  24:23 

While then does engineering sell itself to primary school students or does it Yeah. When I was a kid, right, I wanted to be a farmer. I wanted to be a bus driver. I wanted to be a spaceman there were all these kinds of things that I could see around the engineering like I don't walk past a building going I don't be able to design a building like that one day Yeah. How do we get these kids like

James Kavanagh  24:47 

engaged? We environments. We have actually gone into as I said, we maintain our we maintain our links with with the colleges and with second levels. rules as well. But a big help with that is that we've also been involved in the engineers origin Steps program, engineers Orland Steps program is a program where they actually target what I would call fourth level, which is primary level and secondary level students. And that's the open the ROIs, in relation to engineering and the different facets of engineering. And I think there's a requirement, let's say are on the particular industry, to then go and highlight if you like, the aspects of that particular industry, what so what I'm saying is I'm where I'm coming from, I'm highlighting the aspects in terms of what's called Building engineering, because I have particular interest in that. But the Steps program in terms of getting people interested in, in the engineering and the STEM subjects is really, really, really a good program and a support really for the industry as well as as well as the students.

Dusty Rhodes  25:56 

Tell me just to kind of wrap up our chat today, what challenges are you facing yourself over the next two, three years,

James Kavanagh  26:03 

the challenges that we're going to face over the next two or three years are no real different to the challenges we would have faced over the last two or three years, it's just that some of them will come to the come to the fore, our step back, depending on where we are in economic, let's say cycle, so one of the big, the big ones, when we start to hit on it, as well as the general sort of skill shortage in the profession. That's not only Ireland. That's that's, that's throughout the world. And we know that the summer for every sort of challenge, I suppose there's opportunity. So the opportunities isn't there, there's a sealed shortages, insofar as that we started, tends to create diversity within the workforce, which is needed. And as well as that I can go to address, let's say the gender balance that that's it that needs to be addressed with particularly the within the building, the building industry, the inflationary pressure brought up brought upon by the global pandemic, but also the now the war in Ukraine, we don't know when that's going to finish, but that's having a huge knock on effect in terms of building confidence. So that's a challenge, an immediate challenge. But again, there's an opportunity, as we said, in relation to lean design, that can address that go some way to address that, because there's, there's opportunity there, in terms of the adoption of modern methods of construction, and modern simulation techniques, which is bam. So there's, for every sort of challenge there is there and there are opportunities, there's a constant need, if you'd like to keep up with technology, but that's also how you say, an opportunity for engineers who want to progress their career through increased learning, you know, to be in a lot of engineers, they qualify as engineers, so actually, you know, diverse into into into older an older professions. So, in terms of sort of challenges, there's always sort of opportunities that's brought to the brought to the table, if you look at it that way, on the more or less at a local level in relation to to Orland one of the big challenges is actually delivering I suppose, on the national development plan. And as far as 2021, I think, yeah, 21 to 22. You're talking about 22 Earlier on, there's a huge investment there planned 160 5 billion in relation to public funding, and engineers in general will be required to deliver on that so that's the challenge is actually delivering on the national development plan on a on a countrywide level, as well as bigger issues on the on the global on the global fair.

Dusty Rhodes  28:36 

James Kevin as CEO of Armand Consulting Engineers, thank you very much.

James Kavanagh  28:40 

Thank you, they'll sleep.

Dusty Rhodes  28:43 

If you'd like to find out more about what we spoke about on the podcast today, you'll find show notes and link details in the description area of your podcast player right now. Our amplified podcast was produced by for engineers journal, you'll find advanced episodes at our website engineers Ireland dot A, or just press the Follow button on your podcast player right now to get our next episode automatically on Apple, Spotify or whatever podcast player you're using. Until next time for myself to steroids. Thank you for listening